Algorithm Design Workshop: Day 1 (April 1st 2017)

Algorithm Design Workshop: Day 1 (April 1st 2017)
It was a session for 10-13 year old kids that we did in two places – Thane and Borivali. Below is a gist of the experiences of the first day.
Since the objective was to get them introduced to Algorithms and Flow Charts, I asked them to make a flow chart where a robot has to check why the baby in the cradle is crying. I said, it could be crying for three reasons:
1. It is hungry
2. It has passed urine or poop
3. It is bored and wants to be taken out of the cradle.
The task was to write a flow chart that will enable the robot execute the task if these were the only three reasons that a baby would cry for.
The initial challenge was ‘how will the robot check if the baby is hungry’. On that one boy said that if a feeding bottle is kept in its mouth, it will drink from it. Another boy said that the robot will see if the stomach is full or flat.
Next task was to know if the baby has passed urine or poop. One participant said that the robot can touch it. I said that the robot doesn’t have a perception of touch. Someone said that the colour of the dress would have changed if urine or poop is passed. I said that that would be one way the robot would know. On that, one fellow jumped and said, the robot cannot touch and know but it can see? How could it hear the baby’s cry in the first place? Why is it that only one sensory perception isn’t working and others are working?
I gave some reasons for that but i was amazed by the thinking by the children.
In one of the batches, a participant said that the robot can find out if the child has passed or not by checking the weight of the diaper. (This was my favourite answer because weighing is something that can be practically done and checked).
The question that i loved the most was…’Sir, you said Computers are dumb because they cannot think on their own and that they need to be taught. So does humans because we also need to be taught. So how are we different from computers?’ I think this was a brilliant question for a 9-year old. In my reply I asked him, ‘Who taught you to talk, walk, cycle, swim?’ Promptly he replied, ‘My mother’. I asked, ‘Did you learn to talk by listening to her or was it like a classroom teaching? How did you get the ability to walk? Who gave you the cycle balance? Was it a discovery by you or were all these taught to you?’ I could see the bewilderment in his eyes and he nodded his head saying he got the answer for this question.
Another task was to explain to a person over the phone ‘How to draw a 5-pointed, 7-pointed and 8-pointed star? And this person who is listening doesn’t know what a star is.’ Basically, it was to write an algorithm which can be made into a program to make a star.
In the exercises, the children also learn to define concepts. E.g. In one of the tasks was to construct a star. While doing so, some constructed a 5-point star, some 6-pointed and some constructed very different stars which normally we do not think of. Most of them rejected that these different-looking stars to be called as stars. Thus we came to a point where one had to define what is a star. If a 6-pointed star can be constructed using two overlapping triangles, why don’t they accept two overlapping squares as a star? Once a common consensus happened on definition of a star, we came to algorithm to construct a star. Some of the started saying…Join point A to point B …but later realised that we haven’t defined the positions of points A and B. Some said, draw a line diagonally a bit longer …but then they realised that they have not defined what is a ‘diagonal’ and to which direction are they refering to and how long is ‘a bit long’? Through all this, they kept aside all their pre-conceived notion of a star and started defining terms and processes without taking anything for granted.
Another example that we discussed was – how to return the discounted amount when we buy something in a combo-offer? The best thing was the students themselves discovered each and everything. All i had to do was to introduce them to how a flow chart is drawn. Rest of the things followed on its own. In fact, a lot of exploration was done on star shapes and Algorithms to draw those stars. I was quite amazed to see three 9-year olds working with full enthusiasm and rigour on the problems. So was on 6-year old (a guinea pig) who was an experimental piece in the workshop.
My learning: No topic is boring. It is the examples that can make a topic interesting or boring.
While everyone celebrated the FOOL’s Day, we did something more MeaningFUL!

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